Azor

"Azor" is a quiet, unhurried, unflashy film, and that's what makes it so unnerving. You come away from it feeling that you've been given a greater understanding of how authoritarian coups happen in countries. The takeaway feeling isn't, "Oh, the humanity," but something more like, "What would I do if I were in that world? Would I be the revolutionary hero of my fantasies, or something else?" 

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Andreas Fontana, the movie takes its sweet time introducing and exploring its setting, 1980 Argentina. We're at the midpoint of a military purge of civilian government between 1976 and 1983 that killed, tortured or disappeared thousands of people and stole land and property from their families. A private banker from Switzerland named Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) has come to Argentina with his wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) to find out what happened to his partner Keys, a mesmerizing absent presence; like Harry Lime in "The Third Man" and Kurtz in assorted versions of "Heart of Darkness" (a story Fontana references directly by briefly putting his hero on a boat headed upriver in the jungle), he's a mysterious and complicated man, variously described as brilliant, depraved, untrustworthy, charming, distracted, and proficient. The one thing that's clear here is that Keys left a lot of important business unfinished when he vanished, and it's Yvan's job to wrap things up, for the sake of the the bank, its clients, and his own position.

From the opening scenes of "Azor" we feel a gnawing dread. Yvan and Ines are brought from the airport to their hotel in the city by a driver who gets pulled over by police checking IDs and asking questions. Two young men are being held at gunpoint on the street, and although we never hear the voices of these men or the officers detaining them, we're anxious at the possibility that they'll be shot the minute somebody orders them to stand against a wall, which an officer eventually does. When the couple arrives at the hotel, an otherwise mundane conversation between Yvan and the desk manager takes an ominous turn after Yvan describes what they saw on the way over. Although it's probably against his code to express political opinions on the job, it's clear that the manager is offended by the implication that something has gone very bad in Argentina. "You don't understand," he says. "The situation was awful here. The country needs major reforms."

The ellipsis and frustrations in the couple's journey are the film's gateway into helping us feel, rather than intellectually understand, what happens when a military junta seizes control of a country and begins a systematic campaign of destabilization and terror. 

Meetings that were scheduled simply don't happen. There's no explanation for why they didn't happen or where the other person is. There are in-person and phone conversations and buying and selling things, but we aren't clear on how the items were obtained and whether they really belong, in any meaningful sense, to the person offering them for sale. We hear secondhand reports of an important man whose home was visited by the police, who "took everything" from his house. There's a driver in one client's employ that we are told is not actually good at driving, but is kept around for his willingness to do "other favours" for the boss. 

And then there's a lawyer named Dekerman (Juan Pablo Gerreto) who represents a major client, Aníbal Farrell (Ignacio Vila), who is threatening to withdraw his assets from the Swiss bank; like all the other characters, he speaks in rather genteel language except when he gets Yvan by himself at the track and unsettles him by telling him that his boss was attached to Keys "like an addict sucking his dealer's cock." The language is shocking because nobody else in the film has talked that way yet. The rest of the scene proceeds with no comment on that line, even though we see how badly it destabilized Yvan. 

Rongione is outstanding throughout, but never better than when he's showing us how Yvan's "professionalism" amounts to a conscious suppression of any type of moral code. His wife starts to seem like a more advanced, or enflamed, version of whatever Yvan is. Cléau matches Rongione by out-underplaying him, which could not have been easy to do, so controlled is Rongione's affable, "I'm just an average guy trying to do a good job" take on the hero. Inés looks beautiful in her array of dresses, gowns and swimsuits, and seems to live to swim in fancy pools and sip cocktails in luxury hotel lobbies and smoke cigarettes and make chit-chat, immersing herself with pleasure the life that Yvan's business has given her, and guiding him back toward the established processes whenever he shows so much as a glimmer of regret for anything bad that he might be enabling. 

There's a touch of Graham Greene ("The Quiet American") to the film's portrayal of corruption as it is manifested in a country's upper classes. The well-off yet quietly terrified people that Yvan mingles with are all wondering how they can escape whatever fates keep befalling the disappeared, executed, and persecuted. Their motivations blend self-interest, greed, and a reluctance to stand for any principle that might bring harm, or even inconvenience, upon them. Some of the seem appalled at themselves for being such small, sad creatures, but others are more matter-of-fact, and talk of how important it is to accept change and adapt to the new normal, whatever it might be. A priest who has investment with Yvan's bank calls what is happening to Argentina "a purification phase," as if there's something in the water supply that has to be filtered out for everyone's good.

There's a family in this film, headed by one of the hero's clients, that has been missing an adult daughter for years—a political agitator who protested what the military was doing. The way that the movie expresses the family's' ongoing grief and terror by stepping around is possibly just as chilling as any visualization of her fate might have been. She's just not there anymore. 

I'm not sure what I expected from "Azor," but I didn't expect what it gave me, and that should be considered high praise. As in certain 1970s paranoid films about powerful people exercising their will through intimidation (I kept thinking of "The Conversation," because of all the words and phrases that remain eerily unexplained) the movie is set in a world that is disordered and violent but presents itself as functioning and "normal." In its measured, rigorously classical way, the movie gets at an essential, horrible truth about what happens to the citizens of a country where one side is systematically disempowering and denuding the other over a period of years, and the other side can't be bothered to mount an effective resistance because they're mainly concerned with protecting whatever they've still got, and hoping that whatever bad things happened to the ruling junta's enemies does't happen to them, too.

"Azor" was supposedly inspired by a letter the director discovered among the possessions of his father, a Swiss private banker just like the movie's protagonist. It documented a trip to Argentina during the same period in which the film is set. There is nothing in the letter about the horrors that were going on in the country at that historical moment. it was just a lot of mundane detail. Everything was fine. This is how dictatorships assert control over a population: an inch at a time, and with the tacit approval of the conscienceless, the self-protecting, and the professionals who earn commissions from them.



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